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Why Are We Seeing Fewer Stock Splits?

By Motley Fool Staff - May 13, 2016 at 7:22AM

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Compared to the 1990s, we’ve seen relatively few stock splits in the past few years. The Motley Fool’s Dylan Lewis and Sean O’Reilly explain why.

Although many investors like stock splits, viewing them as a bullish signal even though they change nothing, today's companies are seemingly reluctant to undertake splits. In recent years, the numbers make it clear we're seeing splits occur less and less.

In this segment from the Industry Focus podcast, Dylan Lewis and Sean O'Reilly go over the time frame that's being examined, the numbers that are being seen, and offer up a few explanations of why, in the Internet age, share splitting just isn't as popular as it used to be. There's also a Warren Buffet angle.

A transcript follows the video.

This podcast was recorded on May 6, 2016. 

Dylan Lewis: This is kind of an interesting data point I came across in researching this show. From 2008 to 2013, only 12 S&P 500 companies on average split their stocks each year. This is data coming from S&P Dow Jones indices. By comparison, in the '90s, an average of 64 companies in the S&P 500 split their stocks each year. In 1997, there were 102 total stock splits.

Sean O'Reilly: Wow. The proof is in the pudding, yeah.

Lewis: I have a couple theories as to why stock splits are going down. Before I name any of them, Sean, do you have any guesses or thoughts?

O'Reilly: I peeked at yours -- they're very good. The other theory I have is, Warren Buffett has become a huge part of the American nexus, and he's become increasingly influential in the last 20 years, with all these books, and he's just everywhere. He's basically a household name now. Another instance where he kind of said this was silly was tech companies, in the early 2000s, and actually Coca-Cola (KO 2.34%) too, they weren't expensing stock options on their income statements. They were giving millions of dollars to employees, but they weren't expensing them on income statements, and Buffett was like, "That's silly. It's hard to calculate the value, I'll grant you, and that's fine."

Lewis: "But you need to account for that somehow."

O'Reilly: Yes. And not only did Coca-Cola, which he owns 9% of, do it -- and that was actually the first S&P 500 company to expense stock options, I believe. If it wasn't the first, it was one of them. But he actually got his buddy, Bill Gates, to do it at Microsoft (MSFT 1.07%). They were the first big tech company. So, I couldn't prove it, but I would throw out Buffett being part of the American nexus and his thoughts on the matter. He does not believe in share splitting. He wants long-term partner shareholders. I would throw that as a hare-brained theory of mine. (laughs) 

Lewis: A couple thoughts I had on it. One of them, you look at the time frame this was cited -- and I grabbed this from a Wall Street Journal article -- that 2008 to 2013 range -- that's mid- to post-financial crisis.

O'Reilly: They were doing reverse stock splits, more likely. (laughs) 

Lewis: Yeah, you might just see companies wanting to stay stable, and not rock the boat with anything crazy on the corporate governance side. One of the other things, I think, to your point about technology, you have online discount brokers, which make building positions much cheaper. You look at some of the very expensive tech stocks right now, like Google (GOOG -0.27%) (GOOGL -0.21%). If you want to buy one or two shares, right now you can do it and pay a $7 commission. The expenses are not a huge portion.

O'Reilly: Right. In fact, that's $7 flat, so it doesn't matter.

Lewis: Right. Whereas, maybe in the early '90s or so, the cost of making those types of trades and position building and dollar-cost averaging was a little bit more expensive. The one other thing I think might be contributing, maybe not quite as much, is the widespread availability of fractional shares. The idea that people do not need to buy an entire share of Google. There are a whole bunch of platforms out there where you can buy parts of a share of Google.

O'Reilly: The wonders of modern technology.

Lewis: Yeah. So, those are some of the reasons I see. I think largely companies are not as tied up in the idea of making it as accessible to buy shares. I think there's something to that idea of building more of this buy-and-hold company type pressure. That's what Alphabet did. That's what we're moving toward. And there's a lot of Buffett influence there.

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